Aiden Aslin, a Briton fighting against Russia in Mariupol, cannot be reached after surrender

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Aiden Aslin, a British man who fought in Ukraine, spent weeks defending the besieged city of Mariupol against Russia’s advances, while fighting raged block by block for control of the strategic port.

When Aslin’s unit – Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade – ran out of food, water and ammunition, he called his friend Brennan Phillips.

“The first thing he said was, ‘I surrender to the Russians,'” Phillips, a 36-year-old American, told The Washington Post about their call early Tuesday local time.

Aslin said his boss planned to hand over the device within hours. And when Russian forces came after him, Aslin said he would “destroy his phone and dump it in the toilet,” Phillips said.

They knew it could be their last call. After they hung up, Aslin sent him a message. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘Let them not forget me,'” Phillips said.

Phillips has not heard from him since. The Washington Post was unable to reach Aslin.

In the days following Russia’s invasion, Ukraine sought volunteers to fight from all over the world. Some followed the call despite the risks. But Aslin joined the Ukrainian marines long before the war – in 2018, according to Phillips – after a three-year hiatus in the fight against Islamic State along with the Syrian Kurdish forces.

It was there that he met Phillips, who set up a team of combat medics in Syria and trained Kurdish and Western volunteers on the ground.

Aslin then tried to defend the Donbas, a disputed region in eastern Ukraine, from pro-Russian separatists seeking more territory there.

Aslin settled in a life in Ukraine. He got engaged. But everything changed on February 24, when Russian forces invaded.

Aslin quickly became part of Ukraine’s last line of defense in Mariupol, one that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently described as crucial to preventing Russian forces from gaining a stronger foothold in the east. “Mariupol is the heart of this war today,” Zelensky said in an interview with the Associated Press on Sunday. “It strikes, we fight, we are strong. If it stops hitting, we will have weaker positions.”

Inside the terror at Mariupol’s bombed theater: ‘I heard constant screams’

Aslin’s unusual story provides a window into the desperate situation in Mariupol, which has reportedly been destroyed after a blockade caused it to be cut off from food, water, heat and humanitarian aid for over a month. Constant Russian bombing made civilian evacuations difficult. Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said on Wednesday that 50,000 to 70,000 people are left in and around the city. He has previously said more than 10,000 civilians have been killed.

For weeks, Aslin spoke of his “frustration” that Russian forces were apparently not targeting his unit and others defending Mariupol, but rather “just targeting civilians,” Phillips said.

Officials have said Russian forces were behind attacks on a maternity hospital and a theater in Mariupol, leaving several dead and dozens injured. Witnesses told The Post that Mariupol residents were forcibly deported to Russian-held territory. Russia is accused of committing war crimes in Mariupol and in other parts of Ukraine.

Russia’s deliberate attacks on civilians in Mariupol are ‘war crimes’, the OSCE said

Phillips said that when they spoke, Aslin seemed “in good spirits,” and as if he had “thought about this for a while.”

Aslin’s unit warned a day earlier that it was heading into battle with dwindling supplies. The renewed awareness of Mariupol comes as Russia has slashed the ambitions of its military operation in Ukraine, by withdrawing forces from the entire capital Kyiv and laying the groundwork for a major offensive in the east, according to US intelligence.

In a Facebook post, members of the 36th Marine Brigade said their unit had defended Mariupol for 47 days, but without supplies, they faced death or captivity.

Phillips said he told Aslin, “You have to find a way out. Don’t give up.”

But Aslin said, according to Phillips, “We have no choice, [we’re] completely surrounded, we have no ammunition, we have no food, we have no water, no ability to supply ourselves. ”

Aslin expressed hope that he would be released as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that 1,026 members of the 36th Marine Brigade “voluntarily laid down their arms and surrendered” near the Ilyich Iron and Steelworks north of the city. The ministry said 151 of them were injured and treated on the spot, and then taken to a hospital in Mariupol. The group included 162 officers and 47 female fighters, the ministry said.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday he had no information on the unit’s surrender.

Aslin’s mother, Ang Wood, told the BBC that her son’s unit surrendered because they “had no weapons left to fight.”

“I love my son, he’s my hero – they fought a hell of a fight,” she told the BBC.

Ukraine is preparing for a new offensive as Russia strengthens its military in the east

Aslin stood out for Phillips when they met in Syria because he had “a heart for people.”

A former caretaker for the elderly and disabled became a volunteer fighter, Aslin was “one of those people who … was there for the right reasons,” Phillips says.

He “took care of civilians while in Syria” and wanted to help end the war there. He had just extended his contract with the Ukrainian military for another six months, Phillips said when the invasion began.

Phillips posted a video on social media following his call with Aslin to draw attention to his friend’s story, he said.

“I realized that everything that happens to him after this is a documented war crime,” Phillips said, citing the Geneva Conventions, which state that “prisoners of war must be treated humanely at all times.”

Now Phillips says he believes his friend is “either in Russian custody, he has been murdered or worse.”

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